FEDERAL Trade Minister Andrew Robb has been cautioned against delivering poor outcomes for Australian agriculture and farmers during the sensitive closing stages of the Trans-Pacific Partnership’s (TPP) negotiations.
Mr Robb left for Maui in Hawaii this week to restart ministerial talks with the 11 other TPP countries, with words of advice again ringing in his ears about the deal’s potential dangers, especially lowering biosecurity standards on beef imports.
No critic has been louder than his Liberal colleague and NSW Senator Bill Heffernan who has issued regular stern warnings about selling out Australia’s clean green export reputation on beef, just to appease Australia’s long-suffering sugar farmers.
Senator Heffernan’s primary concern is about Australia’s beef export reputation being damaged and sale opportunities diminished, due to risks of Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) landing in Australia via US beef imports.
He believes the US cattle herd’s traceability system is flawed and based on a “telegram era” method, compared to Australia’s birth-to-death National Livestock Identification System (NLIS).
Senator Heffernan also has concerns about the US sharing its borders with Mexico and Canada where the disease has been previously detected, causing market disruptions.
Senator Heffernan told Fairfax Media bureaucrats had previously “ballsed-up” biosecurity protocols over the importation of beef from Brazil by saying that country had certification for BSE in its cattle herd, when there wasn’t.
He said in similar fashion, Australian bureaucrats had agreed traceability for BSE in the US cattle herd was adequate “but I don’t think it is, because it’s based on tattoos and tags”.
“We have full birth to death traceability in Australia and I’ve told US and Canadian officials that when they’ve got full traceability and they close their borders they can then come and speak to me,” he said.
“Their traceability system uses telegram era technology and to say that’s adequate is just not good enough.
“They can change the ear tags in the cattle unlike our NLIS where it’s compulsory to keep the tag in the ear.
“I’m saying it’s not okay to bring in fresh meat from the US and until they get full traceability they needn’t even begin talking to us.
“In the past we’ve had a trade advantage when other countries have had BSE outbreaks because of our clean green reputation so I don’t think we should give up our advantage.
“We’ve gone to the trouble of having full birth to death traceability.”
Lack of transparency
In echoing concerns of the Greens trade spokesperson Senator Peter Whish-Wilson, and some Labor figures, Senator Heffernan also has expressed concerns about the TPP’s lack of transparency, especially for elected officials seeking specific information.
“I just think there’s something wrong when to find out where they’ve been on the TPP - not where they’re up to - you have to go down to the Department of Foreign Affairs Trade and sign a four-year confidentiality clause,” he said.
“And then they won’t even tell you where negotiations are up to but we’re the people elected on behalf of the people of Australia to make decisions.
“I’ve got no idea why there are secrecy provisions, when all sorts of sovereignty issues are involved in this, including the capacity to sue governments.
“Commercial people can sue the government for God’s sake - but the text says nothing; it’s just motherhood statement stuff.
“We need to know what’s being put on the table and what’s at risk.
“I mean are we going to give up beef for sugar for Christ’s sake when we’ve got the cleanest greenest beef status in the world?”
Senator Heffernan said local farm groups could say more to help back up his concerns and suggested it was “time we marched”.
“I just don’t think it’s satisfactory for government to say to an elected representative or an elected committee of the Senate ‘we can only show you the details if you sign a four year secrecy clause and only then we’ll show you what’s gone on in the past’,” he said.
“I’ve talked to many senior leaders past and present that’ll tell you off the record that it’s very odd.”
But Senator Heffernan said the trade exchange wasn’t actually about the US, particularly wanting to export meat into the Australian market.
“This is about the US wanting us to lower our standards to theirs so they don’t lose market share if and when they get a (BSE) reactor,” he said.
The National Farmers’ Federation and Australian beef, dairy, sugar and other commodity groups said the TPP offered an historic opportunity to address trade distortions and ensure consumers in the 11 other Pacific Rim countries can access safe, high quality products produced in Australia.
However, Mr Robb has repeatedly rejected suggestions the TPP and other trade deals are enshrined in any unusual level of secrecy.
This week, he said agreement’s details would be made available once concluded.
Mr Robb said if the TPP deal wasn’t done this week, it would be very difficult to conclude it within a couple of years, “but we are very close and I do feel that we’re into the last few issues”.
“As is the case with every other trade agreement; the fine detail will be provided at signing but the broad detail will be decided once we shake on it, hopefully at the end of this week,” he said.
“We are being guided by all the different sectors in terms of how we approach all the different chapters in this trade agreement.
“The thing is nothing’s agreed until everything’s agreed.
“We’ve been through probably thousands of pages of different issues, which in large part have now been resolved.
“If I’m put in a position where they’re suggesting that Australia will be disadvantaged heavily by some of the last few issues, well that impacts on all the other decisions that we’ve already made temporarily until we see the final document.”
America's 'tough game'
Federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce said America played a “very tough game” during trade negotiations and had made their intentions clear about what they wanted from Australia in deals like the TPP.
He said the US wanted the BSE status on beef changed and reviewed at the “minimum” for shelf stable, cooked beef.
“They wanted it, we got it,” he said.
“We progressed negotiations in other categories of other products they want to bring in.
“I said to them I wanted one thing - sugar - that's it and all we get is excuses.
“They consume about 10 million tonnes, they produce seven, so there's three (tonnes) hanging out there.
“We're not putting their producers out of a job.
“We just want a greater say…in the part that they can't produce for themselves.
“That's part of the robustness of these negotiations and I'm absolutely certain that Andrew Robb is up to it.”
American Farm Bureau Federation Congressional Relations Senior Director David Salmonsen told Fairfax Media any issues with BSE for US beef had already been through the international trade standards program and protocols were now in place to deal with it.
In terms of selling US beef in exchange for Australian sugar, Mr Salmonsen said trade-offs and negotiations usually happened in trade deals like the TPP.
He said US Trade Representative – Ambassador Michael Froman – recently stated that sugar was a ‘sensitive product’ for the US adding they ‘won’t do anything in trade that will impact our sugar program’.
“Well that’s a statement that could be subject to some interpretation,” he said.
“We have policy to support our sugar program, whatever amount of sugar, and if sugar really becomes a discussion in this and how far that goes, I really don’t know.
“All these things come down to, at times, how much?”
Mr Salmonsen said Australia already had access and quota to sell sugar into the US market while beef was an “opportunity”.
“Those are the types of decisions people will have to make and we’ll look at that very closely; our states who have sugar production will want to know about that,” he said.
National Party MPs Keith Pitt and Ken O’Dowd called on Australian negotiators to ensure the TPP included “a sweet deal for sugar producers”.
Mr Pitt said the last time Australia was given an opportunity to increase its access to the US sugar market in 2005, Australian producers were left with a bitter taste in their mouths.
“The Australian sugar industry is the leading example of free and unsubsidised sugar trade,” he said.
“The US has a shortfall of three million tonnes per year and they’re strong advocates of free trade.”
Mr O’Dowd said sugar prices in the US are regulated, so gaining access to that market would guarantee a higher return for whatever Australian producers sell into the US.
“We call on Minister Robb to continue fighting for Australian sugar and all the people employed in the industry,” he said.
Action wanted on beef
Beef producers from five TPP member countries called for a high-quality market access deal on beef to be secured at the meeting in Hawaii.
The Five Nations Beef Alliance (FNBA) comprising the Cattle Council of Australia, Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, Mexico’s Confederacion Nacional de Organizaciones Ganaderas, Beef + Lamb New Zealand, and the US National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said it was vital that a comprehensive, trade liberalising deal be finalised.
“In so doing, it would help to ensure that beef producers and their supply chain partners can reap the maximum benefits of the envisaged tariff cuts and that commercial entities can utilize the other trade-facilitating elements of the Agreement as soon as possible,” a statement said this week.
“After five years of negotiations, the TPP must not be allowed to drift or lose momentum at this crucial stage.
“There is so much to gain from trade reform – with more seamless trade rules, reduced costs and less red tape making it easier for food suppliers, such as the FNBA, to respond to growing global consumer demand.
“The Alliance has been buoyed by positive signals from various TPP governments in recent weeks.
“Now is the time to convert this into action - and deliver on the vision of “a comprehensive, next generation regional agreement that liberalizes trade and investment and addresses new and traditional trade issues and 21st century challenges.”